Some traditional properties live off ceremonies and their glamorous past. Nobody wants to change that. “Grandes Dames” of the hotel trade, where a formal ambience is suitable, a slightly arrogant welcome, a distinctly stiff service and décor – which, for the life of me, I wouldn’t want in my house – which all add up to, as the hotel brochure puts it, an “experience of a lifetime”. For me this experience of life, formerly represented by the Grand Hotels, does not exist any more, even after extensive renovations, as performed in the Adlon in Berlin.
The grand Suvretta House in St. Moritz or the Palace in Montreux also belong to that category. The Baur au Lac in Zurich, the Carlton in Cannes, the Brenners in Baden-Baden, the Dorchester in London or the Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires. Nevertheless, I am sure that there are still many travellers who are only happy in those hotels and to whom it is part of the pleasure to either be seen or be treated in a blasé way.
On the contrary, the great hotels and and hideaway retreats in the world are quite often unknown to package travellers, and – just like their well travelled guests – relatively casual. The staff are not arrogant but professional, warm, friendly and unassuming. The service is discreet but always present and ready to fulfil even the most unusual requests. The decor is tasteful, individual and typical of the country. The cuisine is regional, seasonal, delightful or at least talented. Everything seems to be completely under control, almost effortless, without giving even a glimpse of the logistical high performance and hard work backstage
In travel, luxury is one of the hardest areas to define. Naturally, every good hotel management tries to spoil us with its own, unmistakable style. Be it stunning hi-tech, sumptuous decorations, a relaxing health and spa area, stylish bathroom amenities or simply home-made jams for breakfast. However, I do not regard a spa as a luxury. Nor am I particulary impressed with popular diversions and ‘special’ treats – cocktails on arrival, indoor parking, complimentary iPads, bathrobes, lavatory paper folded into a triangular point, etc. All this is simply hotelkeeping rigmarole and pretty much regarded as standard by the experienced traveller.
True luxury is rather more difficult to capture. Stunning views, a restrained elegant decor, comfort, security, filled out and ready-to-sign check-in forms, attentive personnel without a robotic “have a nice day” attitude and fresh and aromatic cuisine would certainly be some of the things that distinguish a great place from the merely adequate.
To me it is the atmosphere of the hotel, the direct warmth radiating from it, the level of excellence and flexibility, lots of space, a bar filled with a friendly murmur and easy-going conversation and the helpful attitude of the staff that make a really good hotel.
If somebody had told me that stepping into the Plaza in the Sixties would lay the foundation stone for a consulting company in the hospitality industry many years later, I probably would not have believed it. I am neither a habitué nor a member of the jet set. Generally my team and I travel incognito, neither known nor recognised. Still I have a special qualification for my analytic consulting work and industry insight: a long time ago, when I was young and inexperienced, I recognised the first impression of the Plaza as it was in its time – the epitome of an outstanding hotel that spoke for itself. That was the very moment my passion for travel and the world’s greatest hotels was born.
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